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October 21, 2006

HUNTING GAYS IN IRAQ: How the Death Squads Work

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the "sexual cleansing" of homosexuals in Iraq -- I first broke the story in my article for Gay City News, "Shia Death Squads Target Iraqi Gays," on March 23. The following article, which I wrote for The Advocate -- the national magazine for lesbians and gays -- is based on fresh interviews with gay Iraqi victims of persecution:

Iraq_map_4 “Every gay and lesbian here lives in fear, just pure fear, of being beaten or killed,” says Ahmad, a 34-year-old gay man, via telephone from his home in Baghdad. “Homosexuality is seen here as imported from the West and as the work of the devil.”

Ahmad is masculine and “straight-acting,” he says. “I can go out without being harassed or followed.” But that’s not the case for his more effeminate gay friends. “They just cannot go outside, period,” he says. “If they did, they would be killed.” To help them survive, Ahmad has been bringing food and other necessities to their homes. “The situation for us gay people here is beyond bad and dangerous,” he says.

Life for gay and lesbian citizens in war-torn Iraq has become grave and is getting worse every day. While President Bush hails a new, “democratic” society, thousands of civilians are dying in a low-level civil war—and gays are being targeted just for being gay. The Badr Corps—the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI for short), the country’s most powerful Shiite political group—has launched a campaign of “sexual cleansing,” marshaling death squads to exterminate homosexuality.

When Iraq’s chief Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (right),Ayatollah_sistani_good_3  removed a fatwa calling for death to gay men from his Web site
earlier this year—it wasn’t removed for lesbians—some observers thought the antigay reign of terror might end. But the fatwa still remains in effect; indeed, persecution of gay Iraqis has only escalated.

“In the last two months the situation has gotten worse and worse,” says Ali Hili, a gay Iraqi living in London, who founded and coordinates the group Iraqi LGBT. “Just last month there were three raids by the Interior Ministry on two of the safe houses we maintain in Basra and Najaf. They were looking for specific names and people, and some of them were killed on the spot.” The Interior Ministry is heavily infiltrated by SCIRI operatives and troops who carry out the Sistani fatwa.

Hili’s group, some 30 gay Iraqi exiles who came together last fall in London in the wake of Sistani’s death-to-gays fatwa, has a network of informants and supporters throughout Iraq. With anguish in his voice, he recalls two of them, lesbians who ran a safe house in Najaf that harbored young kids who’d been trapped in the commercial sex trade. “They were accused of running a brothel,” he says. “They were slain in the safe house with their throats cut. This was only weeks ago.

“Every day we hear from our network inside Iraq of new horrors happening to our gay and lesbian people—it’s overwhelming, we just can’t cope,” Hili continues. “Look, we’re only a little volunteer organization, and nobody helps us—not the American occupier, not the U.N., not Amnesty
International, nobody. We’re desperate for help.”

Through a translator, several gay Iraqis spoke to me about the dire circumstances for gay people in their country. None wanted their last names printed for fear of reprisals, and all had horrific stories to tell.

Hussein, 32, is a gay man living with his married brother’s family in Baghdad. “I’ve been living in a state of fear for the last year since Ayatollah Sistani issued that fatwa, in which he even encouraged families to kill their sons and brothers if they do not change their gay behavior,” he says. “My brother, who has been under pressure and threats from Sistani’s followers about me, has threatened to harm me himself, or even kill me, if I show any signs of gayness.”

Hussein already lost his job in a photo lab because the shop owner did not want people to think that he was supporting a gay man. “Now I’m very self-conscious about my look and the way I dress—I try to play it safe,” says Hussein, who is slightly effeminate. “Several times I was followed in the street and beaten just because I had a nice, cool haircut that looked feminine to them. Now I just shave my head.”

Indeed, even the way one dresses is enough to get a gay Iraqi killed. “Just the fact of looking neat and clean, let alone looking elegant and well groomed, is very dangerous for a gay person,” Hussein says. “So now I don’t wear nice clothes, so that no one would even suspect that I’m gay. I now only leave home if I want to get food.”

One of Hussein’s best friends, Haydar, was recently found shot in the back of the head at a deserted ranch outside the city. “Some say he was shot by a family member in an act of honor killing; some say he was shot by those so-called death squads,” Hussein says. “Everyone says it’s easy  these days to get away with killing gays, since there is no law and order

All Hussein thinks about is getting out of Iraq. “Things were bad under Saddam for gays,” he says, “but not as bad as now. Then, no one feared for their lives. Now, you can be gotten rid of at any time.”

But even fleeing from Iraq to a democratic Western nation is no guarantee of safety. The case of Ibaa Al-alawi, a well-educated 28-year-old gay Iraqi who fled from Baghdad to London last fall and is facing deportation, is sadly typical. “I am a victim of this religious, homophobic ideology imported from Iran by SCIRI and the Badr Corps,” says Al-alawi, who was born in to a secular family and speaks perfect English, via telephone from London. “The Badr Corps is very well-organized—they control two floors of the Iraqi Interior Ministry [in London] and they wear police uniforms.”

Al-alawi worked for two years for the British embassy in Baghdad, running a technical scholarship program for students who wanted to study in the United Kingdom. “But my family began getting threats about me from the Badr Corps,” he says. “They threatened my brother, telling him, ‘If you can’t get your brother to change and stop his gay ways, we’ll kill him.’ They threw a stone, with a threatening letter fastened around it, into the garden of our house—it quoted passages from the Koran, and then it said, in very illiterate terms, ‘Your son is sinful, and if he doesn’t change from being gay, in three days he will be dead.’ ”

The incident frightened Al-alawi so much that he quit his job at the embassy and holed up at his Baghdad home for two months. “One day I ventured out to shop with my mother, and while we were out a pickup truck came to our house, carrying hooded men in uniforms who smashed down our front door and threw a hand grenade into our home,” he recalls. “If my mother and I had been there, we would have been killed. The neighbors who witnessed this attack told us it was the Badr Corps.”

The next day he bought a plane ticket for London, where he applied for asylum on arrival. But his request was refused by the Home Office, which handles immigration in the United Kingdom. “They told me, ‘We believe that you face discrimination in Iraq, but we don’t believe you are persecuted.’ I even showed them a photo of me next to Tony Blair from when I worked at their embassy, but it didn’t help.”

In the first week of August, Al-alawi’s administrative appeal against the Home Office’s deportation order was denied. At press time he was in court, seeking to stop the Blair government from sending him back to Iraq. “My life is in serious danger if I’m sent back to Iraq,” he says. “You know, I have a master’s degree in English literature—to think that a cheap bullet from the Badr Corps could end it all—what a waste of an education.”

Mohammed, a gay Iraqi in his 20s from Basra, fled to Jordan on July 17 after the Badr Corps assassinated his partner. “I don’t know how they found out about my partner, but they killed him by a bullet to the back of his head, so I knew that the danger was so close to me,” he says via e-mail. “I don’t know how I can live without this relationship.”

The death of his partner marked the culmination of years of persecution for Mohammed, starting with his own family. “I’ve been gay since childhood,” he says, but “my family are Shia and don’t permit this [homosexuality]. I think they would kill us before the Badr Corps could if they knew about us.”

The Badr Corps’ murderous campaign is not limited to street executions—it includes Internet entrapment and intimidation backed by violence. Networks of neighborhood informers—SCIRI militants and sympathizers—track suspected gays and report them for targeting by the terror campaign. “One day on the Internet I entered a site for gays in Iraq, and specifically in Basra,” Mohammed recalls. “While on this site I met a new guy who gave me his name and e-mail. But God’s mercy saved me from him—I saw abnormal movement in that site where I met this guy and got out of it rapidly. Later I discovered that he worked secretly with the Badr militia to find and kill gays.”

After discovering them online, SCIRI supporters will sometimes instigate beatings of suspected gays in the street, says Ahmad. People from the neighborhoods and even passersby will join in. “If you are gay, you can’t trust anyone you meet unless they are old friends from within your circle of acquaintances,” Ahmad says. “You can’t date or meet new people because you wouldn’t know what their motives are.”

Every new encounter is fraught with danger. “There have been cases where some gay guys meet some men they thought were gay too, but it turned out they just wanted to use them sexually and then blackmail them for money by threatening to inform on them” to the Badr Corps, Ahmad says. Or a new friend could turn out to be an undercover agent.

“We are desperate to end this state of fear and horror in which we have been living,” Ahmad says. “Many of us want to leave.”

Iraqi_lgbtuk_logo_1 IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HELP IRAQI GAYS, the immediate urgent priority is to donate money to LGBT activists in Iraq in order to assist their efforts to communicate information about the wave of homophobic murders in Iraq to the outside world. Funds raised will also help provide LGBTs under threat of "honor killing" with refuge in the safer parts of Iraq (including safe houses and food), and assist efforts to help them seek asylum abroad.

Iraqi LGBT UK -- there is no comparable group in the U.S. -- does not yet have a bank account. They are working closely with the LGBT human rights group OutRage! in London. Donations to help Iraqi LGBT UK and the group's vital work in Iraq should be made payable to "OutRage!", with a cover note marked "For Iraqi LGBT", and sent to: OutRage!, PO Box17816, London SW14 8WT, England,UK

And, you can visit the Iraqi LGBT UK website by clicking here.

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